Something to listen to while you read. Solo piano sheet music available at Sheet Music Plus.
Fun Fact: When singing Angels from the Realms of Glory, Americans use Henry T. Smarts’ tune, Regent Square, but the British use the French tune Gloria (a.k.a. Iris) – the tune Americans use for Angels We Have Heard on High. (You can hear both tunes along with a third – Mendelssohn – in the sound file above.)
If you’d met James Montgomery, author of the text Angels from the Realms of Glory, you wouldn’t have thought him a likely candidate to write an enduring hymn. His checkered resume (or LinkedIn profile) would have included these items:
- Flouted school rules. Eventually flunked out.
- Apprenticed with a baker. Didn’t last.
- Apprenticed with a store-keeper. Didn’t last.
- Launched a literary career. Failed.
- Jailed for sedition. Twice.
But Montgomery had something going for him: he was a poet. And in 1816, while working as an editor for The Sheffield Iris newspaper, Montgomery published his poem Angels from the Realms of Glory in the Christmas Eve edition. Nine years later, when his text was published in the hymn book The Christian Psalmist with the title Good Tidings of Great Joy to All People, the hymn began its rise in popularity.
Montgomery’s original text contained five verses. The first four are familiar with these beginning lines:
Angels from the realms of glory,
wing your flight o’er all the earth…
Shepherds, in the field abiding,
watching o’er your flocks by night…
Sages, leave your contemplations,
Brighter visions beam afar…
Saints, before the altar bending,
Watching long in hope and fear…
So Montgomery calls Angels, Shepherds, Sages and Saints to worship…who’s left?
Deemed too gloomy for modern hymnals, Montgomery’s fifth verse is usually omitted:
Sinners, wrung with true repentance,
Doom’d for guilt to endless pains,
Justice now revokes the sentence,
Mercy calls you – break your chains;
So some hymnals use more cheerful, alternate verses:
Though an infant now we view him,
he will share his Father’s throne,
gather all the nations to him;
every knee shall then bow down.
All creation, join in praising
God the Father, Spirit, Son,
evermore your voices raising
to the eternal Three in One.
Now I’m not a hymn purist – I believe hymns need to evolve to stay fresh – but I think we’re missing something big with those substituted verses. If the whole point of Christmas is the arrival of a savior to set sinners (us) free, then shouldn’t we sing about it? Yes, “wrung”, “doom’d” and “endless pains” seem a bit dramatic today but, as the Australians did with All Things Bright and Beautiful, couldn’t we modernize that fifth verse and not ignore the sinners (ourselves)?
Sinners, come with hearts unfolding,
Kneel before the babe divine,
Embrace the mercy freely given,
Justified by grace alone.
Maybe I’d better leave that job to the hymn writers.